Justin Novak’s fingers were bleeding. A Band-Aid flapped uselessly from one of the cuts that had been pummeled for nine innings by balls thrown and hit hard to third base. The white knickerbocker-style pants of his UVA uniform were streaked with dirt. The stadium was almost empty and the lights were shutting off. He walked into the pressroom and sat down. He never mentioned his battered hands.
The Charlottesville Tom Sox are a new baseball team. In only their second year, they are still building a local following and an identity. This year they will start the season with an extra incentive for fans to come out and watch games. The Tom Sox will have Novak, a member of the 2015 College World Series-winning UVA baseball team. Wrapping up his second year at UVA, Novak excels as a hitter and a base-runner, and serves as a utility player who can play almost any position on the field. He was forged as a player in Tokyo, in the world’s most disciplined and challenging system of youth baseball.
“Practices from elementary school were from eight in the morning to six at night every weekend, so you’d have to pack a lunch,” Novak says. “Every weekend and Japanese holiday was filled with practice and repetition in baseball, unless there was a game.”
None of the American players whom Novak faces grew up on 10-hour baseball practices. It has produced a rare focus and discipline.
“My dad’s actually an American,” says Novak, in perfect English. “He’s from a small town in Illinois. But he was in the Air Force. So we were stationed in this place called Yokota Air Base until I was in eighth grade. Then he retired from the Air Force and he got a job with the [U.S.] State Department [in Japan].”
In an April 15 UVA home game against North Carolina, Novak played third base. That position is often called the hot corner, because so many balls from right-handed hitters head in that direction. He grabbed ball after ball from the air or off the ground and made perfect throws to get runners out. Each time, the same thing without hesitation. “Playing baseball in Japan, there’s a lot of emphasis on repetition,” says Novak. “Doing something right until you can’t do it wrong.”
Novak came up to the plate in the bottom of the third inning and swung at the second pitch. A line-drive went out to center field. He ran to first base. As the pitcher faced the next batter, Novak began creeping toward second base, preparing to steal. Four times the pitcher threw the ball to the first baseman, attempting to pick Novak off. Four times Novak dove for the base and beat the tag. He advanced to second base on a single and then ran for home plate on a double, barely beating the tag by the catcher, and scoring a run.
UVA baseball dates back to 1889. Its first game was against Richmond College (UVA won 13-4). Baseball gloves were in their infancy and most players still caught balls bare-handed, resulting in badly battered hands. In those days, there was no rotation of starting pitchers or a staff of relief pitchers to step in when a player was worn out. A team had one pitcher who threw every pitch of every game. Injuries were frequent, and most pitchers had short careers as they burned their arms out.
Japan’s baseball history goes back almost as far as the United States’. An American ex-pat introduced the game in the 1870s. The rules are the same as American baseball, but the culture is different. American baseball has a reputation for being a somewhat relaxed sport. We call it our national pastime, whereas Japanese baseball is seen as almost a martial art and is connected to the ancient samurai concept of bushido, the way of the warrior.
“Japanese baseball is all built on pride,” says Novak. “It’s all internal. Even if you are a small player, you’ve got to be tough. Know the fundamentals.”
“A player like Justin with a story like his, there’s nobody else like him in the league,” says Mike Paduano, director of operations for the Tom Sox. Players from the Japanese system rarely enter the American college baseball system.
The Koshien high school baseball tournaments in Japan are considered every bit as serious as major league baseball is in the United States. “High school baseball in Japan is really, really popular,” says Novak. “It’s televised, just like March Madness over here. They will have the TV on in the clubhouse and all the professional teams are watching their old high school compete in Koshien.” Novak’s Koshien experience has uniquely prepared him for the pressures of playing for America’s top-ranked college baseball team.
“It’s so serious that the coaches blow out the kids’ arms and stuff like that,” Novak says.
High school players may be asked to throw more than 100 pitches in a single day and then brought back to the field to do it again the next day. The intense demands on players at all levels of Japanese baseball lead to a high rate of injuries and shortened careers. Novak may be fortunate for being skilled at playing every position on the field except for pitcher. He arrived at UVA with two healthy arms.
“That’s what we absolutely love about Justin,” says Paduano. “This year, I’ve seen him play second base, third base, shortstop and catch. He’s a heck of an infielder because of his soft hands and his quick feet. I think he’s got a good range. I think between second base and third base is where we’ll utilize him a lot this year. We love his versatility.”
In the game against North Carolina, Novak came up to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning. The bases were loaded with two outs. The stadium erupted in cheers. The pitcher stared at Novak for a long time before a timeout was called. North Carolina’s players and coach held a meeting at the pitcher’s mound. A relief pitcher was brought in to stop Novak and end the inning. Two strikes and three balls were thrown. Then Novak hit a ball foul to stay alive.
On the next pitch, he slammed a ball by third base and a runner scored.
“I felt calm today,” Novak said after the game. “I was seeing the ball pretty well today, which was pretty awesome. When I get into two strikes I actually tell myself in Japanese, ‘You gotta win it. Katsu-sol, katsu-sol, katsu-sol.’ Which is, katsu means win. …Like, ‘I’m gonna win this, I’m gonna win this pitch, I’m gonna win this pitch.’ Growing up through a Japanese baseball system, I picked up a lot of slang. I think in Japanese a lot of the time.”
Novak struggled as a hitter in 2015 with a .100 batting average but is now batting .297. Anything better than .250 is considered good in the major leagues. (Batting .300 means that a player hits the ball on average three out of every 10 times he comes up to bat.)
“I started on opening day last year and I struggled a lot. I only had like six, seven hits, and I hit below .100,” he says. “Going through that struggle I learned a lot about myself. …It’s just really humbling knowing that sometimes you make mistakes and you just have to learn from it. Things don’t go your way all the time. I’ve definitely gotten mentally tougher.”
“I’ve watched Justin in 40 or 45 games this year and last year,” says Paduano. “And what he does best is just go 100 miles an hour all the time and give 110 percent every single time. He has this intensity. You can’t stop him.”
The Tom Sox represent the return of summer baseball to Charlottesville after decades without either a minor league or summer college team. Long ago, Charlottesville was a big baseball town at certain times of the year. Before highways and planes made Florida accessible, the Boston Red Sox conducted spring training in Charlottesville, starting in 1901. The predecessors of today’s Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins also used Charlottesville for spring training in the early 20th century. UVA’s Lambeth Field hosted all of them, as well as other major and minor league teams that passed through to play exhibition games.
Novak didn’t think he had much of a chance of getting into UVA through the baseball program. “I visited, and honestly I didn’t think I was going to go here because they were ranked No. 1 at the time,” he says. “Surprisingly, they rolled the dice on me. I’m really thankful for the coaching staff for seeing whatever they saw in me. I’m trying to go out there every day and prove them right and just do whatever I can to help the team.”
UVA’s final exercises were last weekend, and the first Tom Sox game starts at 7pm on June 1. Playing at their home field at Charlottesville High School, the C-VILLE Weekly ballpark, the Tom Sox players will have been together for less than two weeks when they begin competing. But, unlike spring training for major league baseball, all the players will arrive fully tuned-up after months of playing college ball.
Three players from the 2015 Tom Sox team will return. A trio of pitchers, Brian Fortier, Josh Sharik and Zach Cook, was part of the inaugural 2015 team that came within one game of making it to the playoffs. And three Charlottesville residents will be coming home from college to play for their local team: Harvard’s catcher, Jake Allen, pitcher Michael Dailey of VCU and Liberty University outfielder Jack Morris.
Fan turnout for the Tom Sox’s inaugural season was solid. “We had usually at least 400 people at most games and sometimes we had a few thousand,” says Paduano. The bleachers were almost always near-full, and picnickers dotted the outfield. Elementary school-aged Little League players ran in packs with gloves, running to catch foul balls and crowding the exit from the dugout to ask for autographs. To a third-grader, these guys are heroes. Real baseball players whom they might see in major league uniforms before long.
When the Tom Sox take the field on opening day, for most fans it is just a baseball game. But for the players, the stakes are higher. The Tom Sox play in the Valley League, an organization dating back to 1897 that fields college players who are driven to hone and demonstrate their skills during the summer. Top-level college players hope to get drafted by major league teams. Otherwise, their playing careers will typically end after graduation. Major league scouts will likely be attending Tom Sox games incognito and looking for young players to sign.
With a batting average above the norm and a set of skills that can put him anywhere on the field, Novak might have a better chance than most at getting the attention of a major league ball club. But he says he tries not to look in the stands during games—his focus is on the game: Katsu-sol.
“That’s the dream, obviously,” says Novak. “That’s the reason why everyone’s playing right now. But I can’t get caught up in all the scouts and stuff like that. You just gotta try to live in the moment.”
Getting into character
On a recent Thursday evening, Joby Giacalone’s enthusiasm wasn’t dampened by the threat of rain at Charlottesville High School’s baseball field. “This is a very exciting time for us,” he told his summer interns, who were sitting in the bleachers with their parents. “We are on the ground floor of something that hasn’t been done before.”
That something is the creation of a mascot for the Charlottesville Tom Sox, the Valley League baseball team that will kick off its second season on June 1 against the New Market Rebels. With a couple weeks to go before the team’s prairie dog mascot makes its home opener debut, Giacalone has his work cut out for him: He will train two high school students in the art of mascotting—something the 54-year-old knows a thing or two about.
In the early 1990s, Giacalone earned his living as Dinger the Dinosaur, MLB’s Colorado Rockies mascot. He also worked briefly as the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets mascot, and was employed for five years as Homer the Dragon by the AAA Charlotte Knights baseball club. After retiring from professional mascotting in 1995, Giacalone moved to Charlottesville, where, in addition to taking an IT job at the University of Virginia, he served as the Cavman coach for several years. He also created Cosmo the Sheepdog, who appears at a variety of local events every year.
Cosmo performed at eight Tom Sox games last season, but “what we’re doing now is developing a character with the goal to teach,” Giacalone says. “I want to show our organization and the fans what having a true mascot—not one who stands around and shakes hands—can do for an evening of fun.”
After each game, he wants every person in the stands to say, “I can’t wait to come back.” According to Giacalone, the Tom Sox led the Valley League in attendance last season, with an average of 675 fans a night.
In addition to introducing the community to the team’s new mascot, Giacalone intends to “create an internship program that will be here 30 years from now; a place where people will come to learn and hone the craft that is sports mascotting. I hope [some of our interns] really aspire to continue to do this—it is not easy, and it’s not just putting on a costume and acting like an idiot.”
A few weeks earlier, Giacalone had set up a mascot recruiting table at CHS, hoping to interest curious students on their way to lunch.
“It smells like a sweaty sock in here,” said one after pulling on the massive dragon head Giacalone brought along. “Now gimme the paws!”
Giacalone complied, and then helped her attach a large dog tail, explaining that “a tail is fun because you can hit people with it.” Once suited up, the potential intern waded unsteadily into the noontime crowd, joyfully whacking anyone who got close with her newly acquired body parts.
“One of the reasons mascots never stop moving is because they’re like a cartoon,” an amused Giacalone explained. “If a cartoon stopped moving, it would just be a drawing.”
And then he opened his computer and shared an image of the Tom Sox prairie dog costume, which is still being fine-tuned. “This is version three,” Giacalone said. “The first one looked way too much like Yogi Bear. A prairie dog is a very unique character, and I knew going in that it would be a challenge in the looks department.” He said he wanted a character that is cute and “cartoony,” but doesn’t restrict the performer in any way: “A costume you can run around in.”
The prairie dog, who is being named via an online contest, will wear a blue Tom Sox No. 3 jersey (think third U.S. president). Giacalone told a small group of CHS students that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, while on their Thomas Jefferson-commissioned expedition, encountered the creature for the first time in Nebraska, and sent a live one home to the then-president of the United States.
Two of those students are now in the stands at the baseball field, listening as Giacalone explains that they will trade off working the 21 Tom Sox home games this season. The duo, who will remain anonymous until the final game when their identities are revealed, will entertain the crowd pre-game, participate in mascot-fan races around the bases and perform between a couple of innings at every game. When not in costume, they will assist the intern who’s working as the mascot that night, as well as learn about other Tom Sox-related jobs, such as ticketing, music and announcing. The prairie dog will also appear at functions and events throughout the year, to “keep baseball in the community’s mind,” Giacalone says.
“I love baseball,” he adds. “Every boy wants to be a major league player when he grows up. And I did wear a major league uniform during major league baseball games. But mine had a tail.”
Tom Sox Summer 2016 Schedule:
June 1 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. New Market Rebels
June 2 — Harrisonburg, 7:30pm v. Harrisonburg Turks
June 3 — Covington, 7pm v. Covington Lumberjacks
June 4 — Purcellville, 7pm v. Purcellville Cannons
June 5 — Waynesboro, 7pm v. Waynesboro Generals
June 7 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. Front Royal Cardinals
June 8 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. Woodstock River Bandits
June 9 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. Front Royal Cardinals
June 10 — Waynesboro, 7pm v. Waynesboro Generals
June 11 — New Market, 7pm v. New Market Rebels
June 12 — Staunton, 7pm v. Stauton Braves
June 13 — Strasburg, 7pm v. Strasburg Express
June 14 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. Woodstock River Bandits
June 16 — Purcellville, 7pm v. Purcellville Cannons
June 17 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. Harrisonburg Turks
June 18 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. Covington Lumberjacks
June 19 — Harrisonburg, 7:30pm v. Harrisonburg Turks
June 21 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. New Market Rebels
June 22 — Winchester, 7pm v. Winchester Royals
June 23 — Strasburg, 7pm v. Strasburg Express
June 25 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. Waynesboro Generals
June 26 — Winchester, 7pm v. Winchester Royals
June 28 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. Staunton Braves
June 29 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. Strasburg Express
July 1 — Charlottesville, 6pm v. Covington Lumberjacks
July 3 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. Harrisonburg Turks
July 4 — Charlottesville, 6pm v. Waynesboro Generals
July 7 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. Covington Lumberjacks
July 8 — Waynesboro, 7pm v. Waynesboro Generals
July 9 — Staunton, 7pm v. Staunton Braves
July 10 — Harrisonburg, 7pm (All-Star Game)
July 12 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. Staunton Braves
July 13 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. Staunton Braves
July 14 — Woodstock, 7pm v. Woodstock River Bandits
July 15 — Front Royal, 7pm v. Front Royal Cardinals
July 16 — Harrisonburg, 7:30pm v. Harrisonburg Turks
July 17 — Covington, 7pm v. Covington Lumberjacks
July 20 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. Purcellville Cannons
July 21 — Staunton, 7pm v. Staunton Braves
July 22 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. Winchester Royals
July 24 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. Waynesboro Generals
July 25 — Charlottesville, 7pm v. Harrisonburg Turks
July 26 — Covington, 7pm v. Covington Lumberjacks